Thoughts and prayers are not enough…

I can’t believe that I’m writing about another school shooting. There have been so many this year–have we become numb to what’s happening?

We are hearing again “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims”…but I’m tired of hearing that. Not that thoughts and prayers aren’t important–they are. But that’s not enough.

We’ll hear again “It’s too soon to talk about what can be done”…but for those who lost their lives, it’s too late.

And what’s frightening…what’s appalling…is that one of the survivors of the shooting in Texas wasn’t surprised. She figured that sooner or later it–a shooting–would happen at their school. Not because she had any particular insights into her fellow students, but because it’s become so ubiquitious.

Folks, these are our children and grandchildren we’re talking about. Do we have to wait for something to happen to our flesh and blood before we take action?

More guns aren’t going to solve the issue. More thoughts and prayers aren’t going to solve the issue.

We need to talk together…to listen…to decide that our children’s safety is paramount…to take common sense actions that will help. Will those actions stop all shootings? Probably not, but they certainly would help.

When I hear people in leadership saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with you”–but then sit back and take no action…even action that the majority of Americans want–I’m reminded of something that Jesus said, and I think it’s an appropriate statement to share, since so many of those who talk about thoughts and prayers claim to be followers of his. This translation is from The Message (Matthew 7:21-23), because I think it helps us get the vehemence with which Jesus spoke:

“Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’

Our children need and thoughts and prayers, yes. But they also need us to put actions with those thoughts and prayers–to act as the adults whose responsibility it is to protect them, to nurture them, to help them grow up.

And right now, we’re failing.

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A place at the table…

“For everyone born, a place at the table…”

That’s a line from a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray that’s become one of my favorites. There are some challenging lines in it as well, because it calls us to consider how we interact with each other as have connect in so many ways.

The hymn is a call for justice for all…for clean water and health–those things that ought to be available to all people. A call for equality…a call for the right to live without fear…to be able to speak out and be heard. Most of all, it’s a call for building communities of “justice and joy, compassion and peace.”

do believe there’s a place at the table for all people. But–and this is an important “but”–I do not believe there is a place at the table for theologies of exclusion, discrimination, hate…

All are welcome at my table–and I do mean all. I welcome those whose perspectives I agree with as well as those I disagree with. I enjoy learning from those whose understandings are different. In the process, I may even change my own mind! At the very least, I become more clear in my own mind what I believe and why.

But while all people are welcome at my table, all theologies and political beliefs/policies are not. Theologies and policies that tell people they are somehow “less than” and not welcome because of their race, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender attraction, country of origin are not welcome. If you hold to one of those theologies or political beliefs, you are still welcome–as long as you allow others a place at the table as well.

In 2007, scripture was brought to my faith tradition:

Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s shalom, invites all people to come and receive divine peace in the midst of the difficult questions and struggles of life. Follow Christ in the way that leads to God’s peace and discover the blessings of all of the dimensions of salvation.

Generously share the invitation, ministries, and sacraments through which people can encounter the Living Christ who heals and reconciles through redemptive relationships in sacred community. The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.

You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness.

Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.

There is a place at the table for all who wish to work together to create a community of “justice and joy, compassion and peace.”

The young will lead us…

The young will lead us. Those of us who read the Bible recognize that Isaiah acknowledged that fact in his description of the peaceable kingdom in Isaiah 11:6:

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.”

We’ve been aware of that in the abstract…but when children/young people step up to lead us, we tend to think that they really can’t. They don’t know enough—but they do. They don’t know that what they want to see happen is impossible—they believe what we’ve told them: that they can accomplish anything they want to.

We can go back into our own (USA) history to see that kids have had an impact on our society.

We think of the leaders of the American Revolution as being grown adults. Some of them were—but a lot of them were teenagers/young adults.  A complete list is here, but a few of the better known names include these:

  • Deborah Sampson was just 15 when she disguised herself to fight in the Continental Army (and eventually became the only woman to earn a full military pension).
  • The Marquis de Lafayette was 18 when he joined in the battle for American Independence, helping to draw French resources to the colonial side.
  • James Monroe was 18 when he became a military leader in the American Revolution.
  • Nathan Hale was 21 when he was captured by the British and executed as a spy.
  • Alexander Hamilton was 21 when he joined Washington’s staff.
  • Betsy Ross was 24 when she sewed flags during the Revolutionary War.

In our own lifetimes, young people have had a major impact. Barbara Rose Johns was a high school junior who organized a strike with her classmates at her all-black school, a school that was horrendously overcrowded and underfunded. She and her join companions (114 of them!) petitioned the NAACP for help, and their suit became one of the five cases that went to the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Education which mandated desegregation in 1954 in the United States.

Although Rosa Parks became the spark for the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, Claudette Colvin (16 years old) and Mary Louise Smith (18 years old) refused to give up their seats to white passengers, setting the stage for the later boycott.

In 1963, 3,000 young people joined a protest in Birmingham, Alabama. They were blasted by fire hoses and menaced by police dogs, yet they were a significant part of the battle for civil rights.

So yes…the young people from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are following in a significant tradition—it’s time again for us adults to listen and follow them in their quest for justice and their desires to create a more peaceable world.

The power of stories

Over the last couple of years, my spiritual advisor and I have been working with a book by Amy-Jill Levine–Short Stories by Jesus. It’s a look at the parables from a new perspective–or rather, from an old one. Levine takes us through a number of parables, helping the reader to hear them as Jesus’ listeners would have. Sometimes it’s been a challenge, because the way they have been shared or preached for many years has become so ingrained in us.

But when I have been willing to listen in new ways, there have been those “Aha!” moments–times when there are new insights…and understandings that have challenged what I thought I knew.

I’ve been reading the last story in preparation for our next meeting–the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). This one–at least at this point–hasn’t hit me with as many challenges to my understanding as previous ones have…but it has reminded me of the challenges I face as a follower of Jesus. Here’s a version of the story from the Complete Jewish Bible:

“Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.

“In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”

There are so many ways this story challenges us. It’s very easy to say that the rich man got what was coming to him–but if I delight in his eternal torment, then am I any better? And do I listen any better than he did to the way I should live?

It’s also easy to find reasons to explain why Lazarus ended up poor and hoping for help from the rich man…but the story doesn’t give any–and none are needed for the story to have impact.

I think this parable–and Levine’s “unpacking” of it–spoke so much to me today because of what I see happening in this country that I love. Safety nets for the poor and vulnerable are being dismantled…the prosperity gospel is widely praised and preached…and so many who claim to be Christian take actions that to me seem so incredibly un-Christian.

Levine suggests that

The parable ends with a cautionary note. Heed the commands to aid the poor and the sick and hungry, or you will eventually suffer worse poverty, greater pains, deeper hunger. Do not just contribute to the food drive, but invite the hungry into your home. Do not just put money in the collection plate, but use your resources to provide jobs and support for those in need. Do not treat the sick as burdens, but as beloved family members who deserve love and care. Know the names of the destitute; each has a story to tell….

[W]e do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate–in the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers–then we are lost.

Will we listen?

Ugly American

Back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, a book titled The Ugly American became famous (and, in some quarters,infamous). It was an unflinching look at how Americans were often perceived throughout the world…and it was not pretty.

While not true of all Americans, nevertheless, it was true that far too many Americans working or traveling abroad came across as loud, obnoxious know-it-alls who were convinced that they were God’s gift to the world and had no need to listen to/learn about/be aware of any other culture’s history, beliefs, or perspectives. In practice, what this often meant was that rather than listening to what people said they needed, Americans rode in on their white horses with a predetermined set of policies to be implemented, regardless.

It has taken us 50+ years to move past that stereotype…and less than a year to slide back into it.

We now have a leader who has used shameful and obscene language towards those who are brothers and sisters in other lands. He has celebrated those who believe that the mere color of their skin makes them better than others of different skin tones. He has lied–and then lied again to cover up the original lies. He has bullied other world leaders…and refused to work with them in any way to help our planet. He has denied policies that were put in place to protect those who are vulnerable.

It would be bad enough if if were just him. But he has made it acceptable to be cruel to others…to be divisive…to bully.

The America he wants to create is not the America I want to live in. I have no desire to be one of the ugly Americans portrayed in that book–and being recreated in today’s culture.

The America I want to create is memorialized on the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
I hope and pray that it doesn’t take us another 50+ years to understand what we have done to ourselves and our relationships in the world with our embrace of the ugly American stereotype…and that we will be able to again live the promise of Lady Liberty.

Outward sign of an inward grace

The title of this blog is a phrase I hear used at times in reference to the sacraments of the church–that they are an outward sign of an inward grace. But I’d like to look at them another way today…

What we do–how we act–is also an outward sign of our inner beliefs. That’s how people see us…and know whether to believe our words or not. If our words and actions are the same, that sends one message; if they’re not, then people get mixed messages–and they’re far more likely to believe our actions than our words. It’s like an expression my minister father used to use in his sermons: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

So…if my words say I’m a follower of Jesus, are my actions an outward sign of that? I hope so, although because I’m not perfect, I know I make mistakes.

But what did Jesus say? and who did he spend his time with? He spent his time with the marginalized…with those who were seen as “less than”…with those who were open to hear his words, regardless of ethnic background, gender, social status…

And what did he say?

  • Love your neighbor.
  • Feed the poor.
  • Visit those who are in prison.
  • Clothe the naked.
  • Be peacemakers.

When I look around today and both hear and watch some of those who are either religious leaders or who call themselves followers of this Carpenter, I get very mixed messages. Words and actions don’t match–and I find myself returning to my father’s statement: “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

I hope my words and actions match. I try…and try again, because I believe that my actions are an outward sign of my inner beliefs.

…to be reconciled to each other

I’ve been thinking about the word “reconciliation” for several days now…pondering how it might apply to the climate we find ourselves in.

How do we reconcile to each other?

It’s not easy.

But I think it’s imperative…and for those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus, it’s a commandment.

So what is it?

While there are different definitions, the one I’m thinking about is “the restoration of friendly relations.” The origins of the word trace back to a couple of Latin words meaning “bring back together.”

It certainly doesn’t take much looking around for us to see the need for reconciliation…in our families…our churches…our society.

But who is going to take the first step? and what is that first step?

We can’t reconcile with each other unless we are willing to acknowledge the division between us. That doesn’t mean placing blame…doing that doesn’t get us any closer to reconciliation. In fact, it may make the division even deeper.

When South Africa ended apartheid, it would have been easy to say “Okay, we’ve ended it. Now everything is fine and dandy.” But the divisions were too deep. Instead, they went through a difficult process of acknowledging the division…of allowing and encouraging individuals to acknowledge their own role in that division…and only then was is possible for reconciliation to take place.

Was it easy? No. Did it accomplish everything hoped for? Again, no. But it began a process.

In American, there are so many divisions. They cross every spectrum you can think of, and they are not helped by the language we hear far too often today.

Where do we start? By being willing to listen to each other, even if what we hear is difficult or is something we don’t agree with.

Each of us has our own perspective on what is going on around us. I may not agree with yours–but you live your life according to that perspective. Unless I am willing to truly listen to what you believe is happening, I am not willing to reconcile. That doesn’t mean that I have to agree with your perspective…but if I want you to hear what I am saying, then I have to listen to you as well.

I may want someone else to make the first move, but that can only continue to lead to a standoff.

Jesus said that if I bring a gift to church and remember that my brother (or sister) has something against me, then I should put my gift down and make the first move to be reconciled. (Matthew 5:23-24)

Easy? No.

I like to hold on to my “rightness”…and this challenges me. I might still be right, but this calls me to take the first step.

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.–Desmond Tutu

In the end, reconciliation is a spiritual process, which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people.–Nelson Mandela

May we have the courage to truly reconcile with each other.